Get Your Neurons in Gear: How to Think Faster

“Think fast!” — American saying, usually accompanied by something thrown at the recipient

Get Your Neurons in Gear: How to Think Faster by Laura Stack #ProductivityDid you know that smart people actually think faster than “regular” people do? That’s the conclusion of a 2009 twin study at UCLA that scanned specific parts of the brain using Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI). The smarter the person, the faster the mental speed.

For me, this begs the question: does being smart make you think faster, or does thinking faster make you smarter? The jury’s still out on that, but I suspect a bit of both. Intelligence does run in families, but plenty of people without profound mental gifts have proven they can learn to think faster. Everyone wants to think faster, right? We may not end up rivaling Hawking or Einstein in terms of sheer brainpower, but we can certainly boost our baseline thinking speed.

Rising to the Challenge

We humans have a specialty—the same sense that birds fly or spiders weave webs—our ability to adapt and learn. And as with almost anything, you can hack your brainpower and speed the flow of information. How? Think fast!

1. Focus. You probably expected this one. By now, you probably realize you can be more productive when you focus tightly on one issue to the exclusion of everything else. You can’t keep it up indefinitely, but for an hour or so at a time, you can certainly home in like a laser on what matters most. When you fall into a focus trance, you boost your thinking speed. I use a regular kitchen timer and set it for 45-minute focus sessions, which really helps me get “in the zone.”

2. Take acting classes. I’ll bet you didn’t expect this one. But acting classes really do help you maintain your mental footing. I learned to think faster on my feet through improv exercises. Improv classes have helped my speaking ability in many ways: projecting confidence, maintaining poise when faced with a difficult audience member, and responding more quickly to audience questions. I’ve encouraged all three of my children to take drama classes and get used to performing in front of groups of people. Being fast on your feet will be especially helpful during challenging situations, like a sales presentation where the client is asking tough questions. If nothing else, the classes will teach you how to respond to questions in ways that give you more time to answer.

3. Exercise your memory. Although your brain isn’t a muscle, giving it a workout will help it develop it. Your brain cells will forge new connections between each other, increasing speed of access to both information and reasoning ability. You’ll find plenty of websites online to help you stretch your mental muscles, and of course, there are logic puzzles galore that will keep your neurons active. New research suggests that crossword puzzles increase language fluency, but they don’t develop your mind. If you like crosswords, try the tough British-style puzzles where you have to figure out the clues before you can even guess the words.

4. Eat dark chocolate. No kidding! Dark chocolate contains not just flavinoids and antioxidants, which provide various health benefits, it also stimulates your brain’s natural production of dopamine, which has been shown to increase learning speed and memory. Now, I’m not talking about devouring a handful of Hershey’s Kisses; they contain far too much sugar and milk. Try one of those bittersweet 70%+ chocolate bars instead. They may be pricey, but they’re worth it. Meanwhile, eating well in general will help you feel better, making it easier to think; and eating plenty of fish and fresh produce in particular will also improve brain function.

5. Learn something new…and do it repeatedly. When you learn a new task, your brain rewires itself, often with interesting consequences. Not only do you learn more, but you may also develop shortcuts between neurons containing different information. When you repeat the task, it helps burn those new pathways into your neural network. If necessary, start small and work your way up. Interestingly, dancing seems to help Alzheimer’s patients; maybe it can help you think faster while giving a business presentation as well (but not at the same time).

6. Learn a new language. This exposes you to a new way of thinking. Some linguistics and neurologists believe our native languages establish our thought patterns for life. If that’s so, then a new language—especially one radically different from your own—can really shake things up.

The Human Touch

There’s one challenge with the tips I’ve outlined above: they take a lot of time and effort. Many people don’t want to be bothered, because time’s already in such short supply. But since even the slightest increase in mental acuity will serve you well, so at the very least, develop and maintain plenty of meaningful relationships in your life.

Spending time with family and friends tends to improve your mood and clear clogged mental pathways. Talking things out with others willing to listen can help you frame your thoughts and process data, as extroverts have always known. It can also help you relax—and that’s when your subconscious mind will take over, grind through your problems, and present solutions when you least expect them.

© 2014 Laura Stack. Laura Stack, MBA, is America’s Premier Expert in Productivity™. For over 20 years, Laura has worked with business leaders to execute more efficiently, boost performance, and accelerate results in the workplace. Her company, The Productivity Pro, Inc., provides productivity workshops around the globe to help attendees achieve Maximum Results in Minimum Time®. Laura is the bestselling author of six books, with over 20 foreign editions, published by Random House, Wiley, and Berrett-Koehler, including her newest work, Execution IS the Strategy (March 2014). Widely regarded as one of the leading experts in the field of performance and workplace issues, Laura has been featured on the CBS Early Show, CNN, the Wall Street Journal, and the New York Times. Connect via her website, Facebook, or Twitter.

Staying Ahead of the Game: How to Prepare for Your Next Workday

“The best preparation for good work tomorrow is to do good work today.” –Elbert Hubbard, American writer and artist.

Staying Ahead of the Game:  How to Prepare for Your Next Workday  by Laura Stack #productivityYou might not be thinking of much more than getting home as you head out the door from work. After a long day in the office, it’s nice to get away, reboot the brain, and spend time with those you love. As the old song goes, it’s five o’clock somewhere. I totally get that! However, that doesn’t mean you can’t spend a little time prior to the end of your workday preparing for the next one. It’s logical, it saves times, it’s really easy, and it will give you an edge the next day.

Here are a few quick suggestions to help get ready for tomorrow, today!

1. Get your workspace in order. As the day starts to wind down, clean up your desk. File any stray papers or receipts in their appropriate files. Put tools, pens, and notebooks where they go. Wipe off any crumbs, corral the soda cans, toss the tissues, and clean your keyboard with a quick burst of canned air.

2. Look ahead. Do you have the call-in numbers for your meetings tomorrow? Do you have the directions to any off-site locations? If you need something special, like keys to a company vehicle, make sure you have them. Check for any audiovisual equipment you’ll need, to make sure they’re obtained and in place.

3. Prepare a to-do list. Look over what didn’t get done from your task list today (paper or electronic) and move them to the new date. Check your “Tomorrow” flag in your to-do bar and move any items you know you won’t have time to complete. Once you have one list, make decisions on what’s most important and move them in your list accordingly. Block an hour or so off your schedule to work on important tasks.

4. Prepare other people. Send reminders for any meetings or calls you’re leading tomorrow, along with the agenda and reading material to trigger their minds. That way, you hopefully won’t get “I forgot” as an excuse.

5. Put your subconscious mind to work. By thinking about tomorrow’s work in advance, you’re putting your brain on notice to prepare for it. Your subconscious mind will work on any problems while you sleep. If you’re like me, you may literally dream up a solution to a problem while you’re snoozing. Having thought about your day in advance sets you up for this natural problem solving benefit.

One Step Ahead

Granted, your whole day probably won’t be ruined if you don’t prepare for it the day before. But most successes, great and small, derive from advance preparation and reviews of what’s coming next. How many times you review or how much you prepare is up to you and your personality, but at least craft your to-do list and make yourself psychologically ready in advance. It never hurts to start out just a bit ahead, so you can either finish ahead of time—or better, use the time you’ve saved for whatever unexpected things fate and your co-workers throw at you.

© 2014 Laura Stack. Laura Stack, MBA, is America’s Premier Expert in Productivity™. For over 20 years, Laura has worked with business leaders to execute more efficiently, boost performance, and accelerate results in the workplace. Her company, The Productivity Pro, Inc., provides productivity workshops around the globe to help attendees achieve Maximum Results in Minimum Time®. Laura is the bestselling author of six books, with over 20 foreign editions, published by Random House, Wiley, and Berrett-Koehler, including her newest work, Execution IS the Strategy (March 2014). Widely regarded as one of the leading experts in the field of performance and workplace issues, Laura has been featured on the CBS Early Show, CNN, the Wall Street Journal, and the New York Times. Connect via her website, Facebook, or Twitter.

Filling in the Gaps: Making the Best of Unexpected Downtime

“There’s no such thing as downtime for your brain.” — Jeffrey Kluger, American writer.

Filling in the Gaps:  Making the Best of Unexpected Downtime by Laura Stack #productivity

As a survivor of the dot-com bubble and the Great Recession, you’ve probably developed a kind of “go-go-go” attitude about business and work. Agility, flexibility, and speed are the name of the game for those of us who want to maximize our productivity and success. But I admit I do sometimes get frustrated when other people or circumstances affect my productivity, and there’s seemingly nothing I can do about it.
Going to my doctor’s office is a prime example. Because I know the value of time and respect her time, I arrive before my scheduled appointment and sign in. And then I wait. And wait. Then the nurse will eventually take me to a little room in the back, where she’ll leave me after taking my basic vitals. Then I wait again for the actual doctor to come and do her thing. In some cases, I haven’t actually seen the doctor until an hour past my appointment. Ditto at the nail salon. Ditto at my son’s baseball practice. Unfortunately, not everyone respects your time as much as you respect his or hers.

But what can you do? Sometimes the day grows out of control for family doctors, because they have emergencies and slow patients. Some just see you as another face and don’t care that much, frankly. You can’t send them a bill for wasting your time (I’ve heard of people who tried, and it didn’t work).

But what you can do is be ready for unexpected downtime. Whether you’re at the doctor’s, flying, stuck in a line unexpectedly, or caught in a traffic jam, I’ve learned to be prepared for inconveniences and stay ahead anyway. Here’s how:

1. Bring your computer. Laptops are so light these days that I often bring mine along. There’s a lot to be done without WiFi while cooling your heels in a waiting room. So pull it out and get to work on your next report, analyze the previous week’s numbers, or write an article. Or connect to the HotSpot on your smartphone and do some internet research or catch up on reading.

2. Use a tablet or smartphone. Using a Kindle or iPad is a better option if you’re caught standing in line, where you can’t juggle a computer. I downloaded an app called Touchdown to my Kindle, so I can read and respond to email real time and review task lists and appointments. Or you can review reports, read thick documents, or Skype your family. I use the TripIt app to review upcoming trips and double-check all details.

3. Bring reading material. I always keep reading material with me, either on my Kindle or a couple hardcopy magazines. This is especially handy when stuck in traffic, waiting on an appointment, or being shuttled to and from the airport. My reading material is usually business related, whether that means perusing industry reports, the HBR, or business books.

4. Bring your ear buds. A good way to fill otherwise wasted downtime is to listen to podcasts, motivational or educational audio products, audiobooks to help you get ahead, or even conference calls you weren’t able to attend personally. Evernote on my phone allows me to review conference calls with clients for upcoming speaking engagements, recorded by my Livescribe.com pen and uploaded via WiFi to Evernote.

5. Bring some work. Perhaps you pay bills manually or still like to handwrite thank-you cards. Perhaps you write a personal sentiment in holiday cards. Whatever the paperwork, bring it along when you know you can expect some downtime (like that doctor’s office scenario; it’s guaranteed).

Staying ahead of the pack

We all hate wasting time (or you wouldn’t be subscribing to this productivity bulletin). So whenever you have unavoidable downtime when you could be working, use one of these methods to stay ahead and fill in the gaps rather than waste time. I’d rather get as much work done as possible, so I can spend more time with the ones I love when I return. Or as a last option: decide not to work at all. Use your downtime to even out your work/life balance and watch a movie on your next flight.

© 2014 Laura Stack. Laura Stack, MBA, is America’s Premier Expert in Productivity™. For over 20 years, Laura has worked with business leaders to execute more efficiently, boost performance, and accelerate results in the workplace. Her company, The Productivity Pro, Inc., provides productivity workshops around the globe to help attendees achieve Maximum Results in Minimum Time®. Laura is the bestselling author of six books, with over 20 foreign editions, published by Random House, Wiley, and Berrett-Koehler, including her newest work, Execution IS the Strategy (March 2014). Widely regarded as one of the leading experts in the field of performance and workplace issues, Laura has been featured on the CBS Early Show, CNN, the Wall Street Journal, and the New York Times. Connect via her website, Facebook, or Twitter.